Results not indicative of how strong Stewart, Biffle are

If Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle want to vie for first and second in this season's championship race, matching their respective finishes of last year, they're off to fantastic and terrible starts all at once.

The two drove a couple of the strongest cars in the field Sunday at California Speedway, with many believing Biffle was on cruise control for victory. That was the good part.

Late engine failures doomed both of their days, though, and sent Biffle home 42nd and Stewart home in last place, 43rd. Obviously, that was the bad part.

"Sooner or later, you're bound to find a point where something is going to give, and today we did," Biffle said. "So we'll look at it and study it and hopefully not have that failure the rest of the season."

Biffle, who led the most laps of the day, looked unbeatable. But nobody watching could see the vulnerability hidden in the heart of his car. Biffle said he had indications during the day that there might be an engine problem, but he couldn't worry about that while he was racing. He had a car that seemed hungry for Victory Lane, and he just hoped the engine would hang on. When it didn't, Biffle praised his engine department rather than scold them.

The way he sees it, the group spent all last season finding enough horsepower to send him to a runner-up finish in points. That the team finally experienced an engine failure on Sunday just meant it had figured out the boundaries of how far it can push the motor.

"It's frustrating," Biffle said. "It kind of drains you, but I've got to be optimistic about our season. That's the only thing that keeps me going. … We need to get inside that top 10 for the end of the season, and a 30th place and now probably a 40th is not the way to start the season."

But the finishing order doesn't reflect how strong the No. 16 Roush Racing team is early on in 2006. The way the car performed before the failure Sunday was more indicative.

"I was sort of planning on running second," said Matt Kenseth, the eventual race winner. "Greg was the class of the field all day."

But Kenseth, who spoke briefly with Biffle after the race, was confident that his teammate would pull through.

"Greg's going to make the chase," Kenseth said. "There is a lot of racing to do. He dominated the race today and just had something break. That's just part of it. If he had a 300-point lead two months from now and broke, nobody would think anything of it. Every race pays the same amount of points and there is a lot of racing to go and he's going to be just fine.

"He's going to be one of the guys to beat all year again."

Many believe Stewart will be, too.

The defending Nextel Cup champ hasn't had a smooth start to his season. On the track, he had run-ins with several drivers and battled to the front three times after various setbacks to finish fifth at Daytona. Sunday, he had another long day of laboring through the field multiple times after various setbacks. First, a miscue during a pit stop dropped him from race leader to 15th. He had reached the top five again when a blown tire spoiled his run.

Even after that, Stewart was a force. He made it back up to the leaders before his engine blew and sent him home dead last.

Still, Stewart wasn't down after the race. He was too busy taking pride in how well the car ran before the engine failure.

"I think it was pretty obvious we already had bounced back [after the pit miscue and blown tire], getting back up to second and being third there," Stewart said. "I'm just excited. It's not the way you want to end the day, by any means, by dropping out, but at the same time, to run as well as we did today and to fight back from what we fought back through, I'm as excited as if we won the race just from the standpoint of what we were able to overcome."

Stewart also got a boost from how much this reminds him of the adversity he has overcome in winning previous titles.

"This is how we won a championship last year, and that's what I told the guys," he said. "The good thing is that they'll leave here excited today about the performance of how we ran. They're not going to be excited by how we finished, obviously, but we'll look past that and see the big picture.

"Last year when we here at this time, we were in bad shape when we left and we knew we had a lot of work to do. I think we showed today that we're right on top of our game again to start off the season. You know, we don't normally run this strong early in the year, so I'm really excited about where we're at right now."

Where Stewart is at is 22nd in the points standings. Far better than Biffle's 38th position. It's a long way from the 1-2 finish of last season, but it's also a long way from the end of the season. Twenty-four races remain before the field is set for NASCAR's championship playoffs, and both Biffle and Stewart said their greatest enemy would be thinking too long and too hard about a poor early-season finish.

"What's important is that we ran well," Biffle said. "Now we have to carry that forward."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.